NYC native Lory Martinez is the founder and CEO of Studio Ochenta, a multi-lingual podcast production studio based in Paris, France. Since its inception, Studio Ochenta has produced an incredible catalog of podcasts in over 20 languages, many of which sit atop the Apple and Spotify charts. We spoke to her about her personal connection to podcasting, her passion for languages, and her life in Paris.
Your home and family dynamic have been the source of much inspiration for your work. Can you paint us a picture of your home growing up?
I grew up in Queens, NYC, which was an incredibly diverse place. This diversity meant that I grew up with people from all over the world, mostly the children of other immigrants, so I never really felt out of place. As both of my parents are Colombian immigrants, we spoke Spanish at home and blended it with English outside of the world. Most of the content we watched on TV or listened to in music and on the radio was all in Spanish, a lot of telenovelas, and Spanish radio stations.
My childhood was a very blended experience and I use it as inspiration for a lot of the content that I do. It encouraged me to have a sense of openness about the world, a kind of curiosity to get to know other people, their experiences and their cultures because I was always taught to take pride in my own.
I studied French at high school and at college, I got a journalistic and French degree. Then, I decided to come to France to continue my studies at the American University of Paris. Once I arrived in France, I never looked back. I just fell in love with the language, the culture, the movies, everything! The move and the program changed my life. It helped me to establish a unique, global worldview and more importantly, taught me how I could apply this perspective to a professional career. Now, I guess you could call me tricultural!
Do you remember the moment you discovered podcasting?
I think discovered it with Serial, alongside most people, but that wasn’t my first introduction to digital radio.
I worked in a local NPR station before I came to Paris. However, back then, our expectations and methods of digital distribution were totally different. Seeing the techniques used by Serial was definitely a turning point for me. It inspired me to attach myself to apps like Podbean and to discover different a spectrum of shows, ones that were doing something important.
Strangely, Serial blowing up coincided with me leaving for France. In the U.S. podcasting was becoming the ‘next big thing’ but here in Europe, it was still pretty untapped. It took about three or four years for the podcasting wave to hit France in the same way that it did the United States.
How do you feel the podcasting industry has changed since you first entered it?
I think it’s important to remember that there was podcasting before Serial. That’s something that a lot of people forget. Sure, Serial allowed podcasting to become mainstream, but the medium existed before that.
The main evolution in the industry has been its monetization. Now, large platforms are investing in original content, ideas, and producers. The podcasting pipeline is similar to that of book publishing. That was certainly not the case when I first started.
This professionalization of podcasting has been cool because it’s enabled creators to produce some really beautiful things. That being said, every evolution comes with pros and cons. For example, a lot of the producers who began the medium don’t get the recognition they deserve, so in that sense, it’s bitter-sweet.
For me, I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen this evolution in the best way. I experienced radio but I’ve also been able to create my own platform and my podcast company and have it become recognized. I don’t think that would have been possible a number of years ago. I don’t think the world was ready for it yet. Now, it is.
There’s a famous episode of This American Life which details David Sedaris’s tricky integration into Parisian society. This theme is also spoken about in the podcast Dinner for One which you produce. How did you find integrating into life in Paris?
It’s difficult for me to answer this question because I had the privilege of speaking French before moving here. My partner is also French, so I don’t know how relatable my experience is.
I always hear ex-pats say that the French are “rude” that it’s “difficult to mesh into French society” but I feel like in most cases, the ex-pats in question aren’t really trying to integrate. They intend on speaking English and while you can do that, I don’t know if doing so will help you to legitimately build a life here. I recommend learning French before moving to France because there’s a respect that comes with it, with doing your bit to understand the locals, because most people don’t do that.
At the same time, I completely sympathize with people who struggle to learn French because it’s a pretty difficult language to learn. Having grown up bilingual, I probably have a capacity for language that not everyone else has. While I recognize that I also think it’s respectful to try to take advantage of the exposure that English-speaking ex-pats in France are given to the language. As Americans, we have all of these privileges and access to languages and cultures, but many of us don’t speak more than more language and that’s a shame.
Paris is the birthplace of Studio Ochenta. Tell me, what inspired you to begin your own network?
I had been freelancing as a reporter and producer since arriving in France. I always created content in the three languages which I speak and honestly, Ochenta was born naturally through the continuation of that work. The natural next step for me as a freelancer was to build a team, create content and invest in something that I believe in and so, Studio Ochenta was born.
With Mija the first show we produced at Studio Ochenta, we wanted to make a point. We wanted to show that this is a company that is able to produce in three languages and so we’re going to show you that we can do that. Outside of that, the messaging behind that show is also the messaging behind Ochenta’s entire mission: We want to make sure that every voice gets heard and that languages aren’t the barrier to understanding each other, not ever.
Now today, we work in up to 20 languages, but there’s we’re still as driven and centered as we were in the beginning. We don’t want it to feel like we’re copy and pasting content into a new language or following an Anglocentric vision. When we’re making something in Chinese or Arabic, we’re working with real people from those countries and we give them the chance to tell us something is wrong. When there is something we’ve done wrong, we accept their opinions humility and say “You’re right, let’s make this better together.”
Studio Ochenta’s content features a broad spectrum of cultures, languages, and heritage points. How do you source fair representation from such an array of cultures?
Popular podcasting has been so anglo-centric and at Studio Ochenta, that’s something we really want to change. Anytime we tell a story from a new culture, we create a specific editorial team that is informed, passionate, and engaged on that topic.
For example, each episode of our show Cultureverse explored a different culture, so we had a specific editorial team for each episode. Our producers spent hours going through scripts with people from each culture, making sure that everything was as respectful, celebratory, and detail-orientated as possible.
We spend time on research because that’s what makes our content good. As much as we can build a great narrative, we can’t add nuances that make it feel authentic. The people who are from a culture always know how to represent their stories best and their opinions matter to me. We don’t just want to change things, we want to change them in the right way, because how we change them matters.
In addition to having a huge catalog of languages, Cultureverse also features a massive spectrum of sounds. Can you tell me about what it was like to collect all of these sounds?
It was a journey! In terms of sounds, we have an incredible sound design team, some of which are composers so they add their own sample mixes into the sound design.
But in regard to collecting voices, it was pretty difficult. Before we hired any actors we voiced everything ourselves and created a sound design skeleton for each episode to see if the rhythm, pacing, and scenes worked. Each episode probably went through ten revisions before it got to the real actors. We really pay attention to detail in our productions, that’s why our soundscape is so immersive, we want it to feel like you’re listening to a movie.
Studio Ochenta releases a huge variety of podcasts that cover a huge spectrum of narrative structures. How do you find producing fictional story-telling podcasts compared to biographical or conversational ones?
Our journalistic policy at Studio Ochenta is that we do research for anything we do. This is due in part to my journalistic background, but also due to principle. I mean, if you’re going to write about spaceships, you should know about spaceships! If you’re going to write about Chinese historical immigration policy, you should know a little about it, right? To us, this logic stands for any topic, big or small.
We do a huge amount of research for our fiction and documentary podcasts because that’s what’s going to be the foundation of the content. Doing thorough research gives our narratives more legitimacy and gives us more free license to play around with our newfound knowledge. When we’re educated and engaged with a topic that means our content will be too.
Considering your own fluencies and passion for languages, how do you feel about how languages are taught in academia?
I think that teaching languages in the right way is actually one of the big challenges of our time. Language learning is so difficult and we still have so many barriers to learning languages proficiently.
Even though English is used in a lot of international spaces, there are still many obstacles to learning it. For example, many of my French friends have a strange relationship with English. Maybe they didn’t enjoy learning it in school or they didn’t like their teacher or whatever and that singular incident has impacted their attitude towards the language on the whole. Now that’s crazy because most of the content they consume is probably in English, but because of these negative connotations, they don’t want to learn it.
The reality is that this is true for a lot of countries. I think students need to be taught languages in diverse ways, not just through literarily means. Topics such as linguistics and pronunciations really provide for a more holistic and honestly, fun learning experience and should be prioritized.
On the bright side, I do think the old rigid learning structure is changing. There are more and more multilingual schools emerging every year and even in the podcasting industry, international podcasts are becoming more popular than ever. Who knows, maybe in the future podcasts will become a part of language learning!
To finish, what is your all-time favorite sound?
Oh my gosh, hmm… Oh! My favorite sound to hear is the sound of the 7 train overground in NYC, Jackson Heights specifically, that’s my neighborhood.
Whenever I go home to visit and I hear it, it brings back all these amazing floods of memories. It’s so loud, particularly overground, and not like normal loud, like disruptive loud. There’s no way to avoid it, there’s no way to have a conversation near it, it’s all you can hear.
When I was a kid, my brother and I would stand near it and when it passed, we would scream and no one would be able to hear us. I just have such happy memories related to that train and to New York in general. Thinking of them makes me really happy.